A big bang,
Stellarius starts with a bang. Civilizations, with nothing more than a homeworld and a dream, expand throughout a galaxy in the hopes of becoming the next great empire. Science ships chart unknown worlds while researchers expand the player’s technological reach. The player runs across others and that existing scramble only intensifies to grab the few remaining systems left. Alliances form and wars begin and suddenly it all seems…well…slow. Boring. Banal. The hand off between the early game and mid game fumbles and the player pumps their legs in Wily E. Coyote fashion as their interest falls of a cliff. What happened?
Stellaris is an example of a game with mechanics that direct the player away from the fun. What worked so well in the beginning (or wasn’t there) now becomes a drag on the entertainment. Let’s start with limited planets. Stellaris limits the planets that the player directly controls to five (traits can add to this). Every planet beyond the cap must either be turned into an AI controlled sector or acts as a serious drain on a civilization’s economy. While this helpfully limits the micromanagement intensive planet building mechanic, it also means that the player controls the same number of resources in the early game as they do the mid and late. Five planets is enough to power a growing empire, but a mid level empire will find itself resource constrained. It is entirely possible to have an empire with a fleet equivalent to another empire half its size simply because they both can only directly control five planets. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the AI controlled sectors were capable or could be directed, but that is not so. They develop slowly and without the basic building strategies that are incredibly important to intelligently developing a planet. Resources from AI sectors increase at a snail’s pace thereby limiting consolidation and promoting stasis. The five planet rule works in the beginning, but it can’t grow with the game.
As the universe developers, the player must interact with other civilizations. Diplomacy could have represented a fun, mid-game mechanism to help continue the excitement. Unfortunately, it’s designed to do the exact opposite. The two big diplomatic achievements, alliance and federation, direct the player towards stasis. The first, alliance, allows civilizations to come to the defense of their allies. An alliance of smaller civilizations can face down a larger civ in a war they would otherwise lose individually. In a more aggressive environment, this would create an ever shifting galaxy of allegiances and force the player to pay attention to their surroundings. As it stands, the timid AI uses alliances as yet another reason not to attack. Even worse, alliances may prevent victory for a civilization(s) that has all but won a war against an alliance. Once interstellar diplomacy kicks off, civilizations may form alliances across the galaxy. An empire which defeated most of an alliance may not “win” the war if enough of the losing alliance is on the other side of the galaxy and inaccessible. Once again, Stellaris’ mid-game mechanic promotes stasis, not dynamism.
Federations don’t help either. If an alliance endures and its members like each other, they may further integrate into a federation. Federations are alliances under the control of a rotating president representing one of the civilizations. If a player joins a federation, they must subordinate their military to the frightened AI until they gain control of the federation. Presidencies last a great deal of game time resulting in a considerable delay for players who hoped to use the federation for aggressive ends. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the federation had its own mechanics, but it’s really just designed to give the player major power for a short time and then forced turtling until they rotate in again. It’s a mechanic designed to nullify another major game mechanic for 3/4th of its duration.
The problem with Stellaris’ mid game is that one major mechanic (diplomacy) is designed to nullify another (war). If diplomacy replace war with something interesting, this might work, but that didn’t happen. Diplomacy just shuts war down and then does nothing new. Planetary development might have filled the void, but the limitations on directly controlling colonies deliberately stifles that part of the game. These issues create a boring situation where the player manages a stagnant empire with little change but the slow accumulation of tech and a death march towards the end game. Hopefully developer Paradox will address this.